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Carl Safina


Better Than Mayan Calendar, and Perhaps Even Less Probable: Overfishing to End in 2012

Posted: 01/11/12 12:01 PM ET

A federal law, as amended in 2007, required all U.S. fisheries to have management plans, and catch limits that would end overfishing by 2012. And look what year it is!

Way back in 1991, I was federally appointed to one of the eight federal "Fisheries Management Councils." These councils' main job is to write federal fisheries management plans. They were created back in 1976 by the law that also extended the U.S.'s claim to fishing territory out to 200 miles (the Fisheries Conservation and Management Act).

In my three years as the first professional conservationist on any of these federal fisheries councils, I realized that the councils were enabled to do all the right things but not required to do any of them. (And note -- the law was created in 1976, and only this year are all fisheries required to have management plans!)

So in 1992, several leading conservation groups and I decided to try to overhaul the federal law. We wanted the law to require the councils to manage all the fishing, end overfishing, and allow fish populations to recover.

In a 1994 article in the National Academies' journal Issues in Science and Technology, I wrote about the flaws in the existing Fisheries Conservation and Management Act:

"... Many fisheries remain without adequate recovery schemes or even management plans. Neither the law nor the guidelines expressly bind the Councils or the National Marine Fisheries Service to halt overfishing. Other critical omissions in the Act regarding the development of fishery management plans are that: 1) the guidelines fail to specify a time in which a council must address overfishing once identified; 2) the Act contains no provision for action if a Council does not respond to overfishing; 3) managers are not required to consider predator-prey or other important ecological relationships among fishery resources when determining allowable catches for any single species; 4) the guidelines fail to direct the councils to establish a specific rebuilding goal or rebuilding timetable for depleted but stable populations. The Act should require the Secretary to intervene when a council fails to develop an adequate recovery plan within a specified period for an overfished species."

That article convinced Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-DE) to sponsor a bill very similar to a model bill we'd drafted. (Based on my council observations and my article, I'd drafted the overfishing and recovery-mandate provisions.) After much work -- and much to our astonishment -- the things we were talking and writing about became federal law.

That law, the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, fundamentally overhauled fisheries policy in the U.S. For some details, see footnote.*

Almost immediately, the fishing industry attacked. It said that the new law's requirement that fish populations recover in 10 years was arbitrary and "inflexible."

Consequently, I and several colleagues published a study in Science that went a long way toward beating back weakening provisions by showing that the 10-yr rebuilding timetable was carefully considered, based in science, and not arbitrary -- and that it works.

But take note -- fishing industry groups (including some misguided recreational groups) are still constantly getting congressional reps to sponsor legislation that would remove the requirements to end overfishing and recover fish populations within specified timeframes. To see some of the nonsense and vitriol they spew, look -- just for instance -- at this article claiming all the scientists trying to end overfishing and recover fish abundance are in a big corrupt conspiracy:

My answer to them is: first of all, don't be so dumb. Removing the recovery requirements would take the law right back to where it was when almost everything was overfished and depleted. The current law's recovery mandates and timetables are the only things that have let any fish begin to recover. Second, when you defend your fishing, fishing gets worse; when you defend your fish, fishing gets better. Just sayin'.

So far, the law has held up, and through several reauthorizations the recovery mandates have not just survived but been strengthened. As a result, we have some important fish population recoveries going on. And we have this year's requirement to end overfishing in U.S. waters. So far, so good.

Anyway, in a January 9 press release, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) called the anticipated end of overfishing a "historic milestone."

As the press release noted, in January 2007 the Fishery Conservation and Management Act reauthorization required all federal fisheries to have annual catch limits by the end of 2011.

NOAA's fisheries chief Eric Schwaab said, "I can report that all federal fisheries will have catch limits in place in time for the 2012 fishing season." He noted that ending overfishing is an ongoing process. "We have come a long way since 1976 when our nation's fisheries were being decimated by uncontrolled overfishing by foreign fleets," he said. "Thirty-five years later, we now stand at a point in history when the U.S. model of fisheries management has evolved to become an international guidepost for sustainable fishery practices. Still, we have much work ahead."

We do, but as he said, we've come a long way.

*FOOTNOTE-- A few of the technical features of the legal overhaul of U.S. federal fisheries law since 1996:
The first of several significant changes achieved with the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 was a change in the definition of Optimum Yield. It had been defined as the Maximum Sustainable Yield of the fishery, as modified by economic, social or ecological factors. The word "modified" was changed to "reduced," and the passage now reads, "Optimum yield is maximum sustainable yield from the fishery, as reduced by any relevant economic, social, or ecological factor." In principle, Maximum Sustainable Yield is now an upper bound for all fisheries, it is no longer the target. And, in the case of an overfished fishery, optimum yield is the amount of fish that allows rebuilding to a population level capable of producing the Maximum Sustainable Yield.

The other major improvement in the Sustainable Fisheries Act addressed depletion and rebuilding and, importantly, did so with quantified triggers. It defined "overfishing" as the "rate or level of fishing mortality that jeopardizes the capacity of a fishery to produce the maximum sustainable yield on a continuing basis." Under the act, fishery managers are charged with ending overfishing, and they must implement plans designed to rebuild stocks within 10 years. In most cases, when a population falls below 50 percent of the estimated biomass needed to continually support the Maximum Sustainable Yield, the population is defined as "overfished," and it is added to a list of overfished species. (The creation of such a list was a new requirement of the Sustainable Fisheries Act).

Once a species is defined as overfished or is projected to reach overfished status within two years, the regional fishery management council has one year to create a plan to recover the stock as quickly as possible but within 10 years. There are exceptions to the 10-year limit, for example, when the biology of the species or other environmental conditions dictate a longer rebuilding period, as for species such as sturgeon and rockfish that are slow-growing and late to mature (Safina et al. 2005; Rosenberg et al. 2006).

Species that are subject to an international management agreement but lack a 10-year recovery plan are also exempt from the 10-year limit. These overfishing prohibitions and recovery mandates were new under the Sustainable Fisheries Act. Despite the exceptions mentioned above, these provisions are the heart of the reforms.

Ten years was chosen as the rebuilding interval for several reasons. First, most overfished stocks could fully rebound within five years if all fishing ceased. Doubling this time frame ensured there was ample time to implement management plans. Ten years was also considered short enough to force managers to act, minimizing future economic, social and ecological costs (Safina et al. 2005). A longer time frame could also have been used to justify additional years of overfishing or other management failure or delay.

Ultimately, the 10-year interval was selected to balance the economic needs of fishing communities with the biology of the exploited species. If the fishery management council fails to provide a plan within one year of the stock being declared overfished, the secretary of commerce must develop a plan within nine months (Rosenberg et al. 2006). The rebuilding mandates require managers to create concrete plans to allow populations to recover in reasonable time to a biomass that can support catching the population's maximum sustainable yield.

Rosenberg, A. A., J. H. Swasey et al. (2006). "Rebuilding US fisheries: progress and problems." Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 4(6):303-8,

Safina, C., et al. (2005). "U.S. ocean fish recovery: Staying the course." Science 309(5735):707-8,;309/5735/707?maxtoshow=&hits=10&RESULTFORMAT=&andorexacttitleabs=and&andorexactfulltext=and&searchid=1&FIRSTINDEX=0&volume=309&firstpage=707&resourcetype=HWCIT.


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